Why are there so many Christian denominations?

Written by Pastor David Pfeiffer / April 2017

Part 1

Why are there so many Christian denominations?

“So what’s the difference?” That was the question she asked me. I had come to the assisted living center to visit someone and having sat down at their lunch table for only a few minutes, an elderly lady began to tell her story. She told me about how she grew up Catholic. Then, at some point she married an Episcopalian. Then later she switched to Baptist and attended a few different Baptist churches. She told herself that with how many times she had been re-baptized, she was sure she must be saved by now. Even after being exposed to all that, she couldn’t say exactly what the difference was.

What is the difference really? The pew research Center divides the Christian religion into 47 different “families”–Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran, and so on. Then within each of those families you have all the different sorts of Baptist, Lutherans, etc. You have southern Baptist and Anabaptists; you have reformed Presbyterian and Presbyterian U.S.A.; there is ELCA and then there is LCMS and ELS and WELS and CLC. These are the glowing signs shining in the night, each telling us why their church is the one to come and visit.

One reason why these labels are not helpful is because it doesn’t necessarily tell us what that person really believes. Whether CLC or not, Christians don’t necessarily know what their church teaches or why; and even if they do, they don’t necessarily agree with all of it. The popular slogan coined by the Unitarian Universalists is: “deeds not creeds.” That is to say, your individual experience is more important than being committed to a creedal statement of faith.

So rather than being defined by distinctive doctrines, many difference are measured in other terms–like tolerance, acceptance, activity, and size. What a church has to offer the individual means more than what God has to offer the church. Faith is personal, yes; but what is being lost is the communal and confessional expressions of faith. Faith is something God intends to be express in unity and community, “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

The reason there are so many denominations has to do with our own sinful weaknesses. Perhaps it is to serve the belly; perhaps we have been deceived; perhaps it is to spare ourselves the pain of persecution; perhaps it is ignorance; perhaps it is a preference for human tradition; perhaps it is personal bitterness. In the end, the two most basic reasons for church division have to do with either a violation of faith or love.

Sometimes churches become divided over matters of faith. We know that even in the days of the apostles already many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). And because these are matters of faith, you can’t prove or force Christians into believing the same thing. That would be to expect the kingdom of God to come by the letter rather than the Spirit. Even creedal statements don’t serve to preserve unity in God’s Spirit.
In other situations it happens on account of love; or more specifically lack of love. The heart is deceitful above all else” (Jeremiah 17:9). Bitterness and anger can divide us just as readily as doctrine. The fellowship of the Spirit can just as well be threatened by a mean spirit as it can by a false spirit.

Because of all this, the glowing label “Holy Christian Church” cannot be pasted on our church sign. The Holy Christian Church is a matter of faith in the heart, not labels. We believe in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Christian Church; which means we cannot label Christians by the denomination “CLC” anymore than it can be labeled by any other glowing sign. So Paul writes that only the Lord knows those who are his” (2 Timothy 2:19).

Thankfully, by God’s grace these labels will eventually be left behind and only one will glow in the shining light of God’s temple. When we are resurrected, we will see only one name upon all who believe. All races and cultures, all synods and denominations will be one. Then we will we bow together before the Lamb, and there will be no more questions about denominations and differences. For that we praise the Lord; and for now we wait and struggle.

As I looked into the uncertain expression of a woman who had spent much of her life bouncing from church to church, I faced the struggle. I knew simply listing the doctrines wouldn’t be enough. Maybe the question we should be asking is not “why are there so many denominations?”–rather “how do I talk about this issue with other Christians?” What I plan to do in the next part is offer you a way to work through this second question. Read part two below as we go more deeply into this discussion–using the font and the altar as the basis for conversations across denominational all lines.


Part 2

How do we talk to others about all these different denominations?

As I looked into her uncertain expression, I began to wonder how I would explain the differences. Her background was so different than mine. Sure I could give her a list of doctrines; but often, such conversations are too abstract, too far away from the flesh and blood experience of this world. Here was a woman who had been re-baptized as many times as she had been re-married. She grew up Catholic; later she married an Episcopalian; eventually she became a Baptist. And now she was in a nursing home talking to a Lutheran and asking “so what’s the difference?”

Labels can be helpful, but they can also confuse the issue. For me to say what is Lutheran or to assume I knew what she meant by “baptist” was only confusing things. For one reason, faith cannot be defined by church labels and logos. Rather, faith is personal. What I mean by that is: faith involves individual “persons.”

Each person has his own way of understanding who he is and what he is supposed to be doing. Each has their own understanding of their personal identity as a Christian. This is fundamental to our understanding of ourselves and our life as human beings. Where did I come from? Why am I here? What am I supposed to be doing?

For example, when a Christian visits a congregation that practices closed communion and is told she cannot commune, it can be quite personal. She is a baptized Christian and she has come to worship her Lord. To not be able to commune has called into question the very foundation of her identity. Similarly, when she responds by telling you that your church is close minded or hateful, you can take it quite personally too. Your very identity is being attacked too! Labels just don’t do justice to such an interaction. Faith involves individual persons who cannot be defined by glowing signs.

I would like to suggest one way to deal with this interaction. Rather than talking about labels, talk about liturgy. That is to say, I’d like to take this discussion from the font to the altar. After all, whatever the Christian and whatever the background, our identity begins at the font– as Paul writes:

“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-29).

All Christians wear one baptismal gown and are baptized into only one name. At the font, God gives us a new identity. He makes Himself our God, gives us His Spirit, and grants us the gift of His holy name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This binds together the whole church of God in Christ Jesus–one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:5-6).

This is why many churches will place the baptismal font either at the entrance to the church or just before the steps toward the altar. The power of baptism has nothing to do with which denomination you belong to. This is why Lutherans don’t “re-baptize” those who come from other denominations. Baptism grants eternal access to the Father to all who call on His name. What it means to be a Christian then arises out of the water in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 6). This new life then is shown forth in our worship of God and the confession of Jesus as the Christ, God’s only Son.

This baptismal faith is expressed in both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed is the common creed which distinguishes the Christian faith from all other religions. Our baptismal identity as Christians is outlined in this creed and all who confess it and order their worship according to it express a common faith. In this we have the basis to say we are worshipping the same God and to say that Jesus is our Lord by the Holy Spirit.

Sadly, somewhere after leaving the font, people get hurt, lost, led astray. Somewhere between the font and the altar congregations become divided. It could be false teaching that causes this; it could be hatred and pride. It could be due to a church caring more about growth than truth; or it could be due to a church caring more about tradition than teaching. As it says in Galatians 5: “Beware lest you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!” (5:15)

Whatever the reason, we have become divided. And that division is a serious thing. It is very sad to God and should be to us also. It is a painful experience to have a visitor come to your church and not be able to welcome them to the altar for communion.

But this is the very reason we practice closed communion. The purity of people’s consciences are at stake here. When we approach the Lord’s Supper, it is crucial that we have confidence in what God is promising and in how we are receiving it. “Let us draw near with an honest heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22). Everything we do in Sunday worship–the preaching, the teaching, the hymns, the prayers–are all meant to prepare us for rightly celebrating the Lord’s Supper together.

We want to be sure that we are rightly approaching the altar. The altar represents everything a congregation stands for and the love that binds them together under one Lord. The pulpit is where our Lord is at work, proclaiming Himself to us and preparing us to receive Him in bread and wine. That pulpit together with the words of the liturgy is the bridge which invites us to come closer and to do so together with one mind and heart.

Any division within the fellowship becomes detrimental to the whole congregation. Whether it is a disagreement over doctrine (faith) or over a personal matter (love)–we are in danger of receiving the bread and wine to our own judgment (1 Corinthians 11). The Apostle Paul warns against this very thing when he says to the Corinthians, “you come together not for the better but for the worse. For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you” (11:18).

It is sad that many think it is not important to know each other in order to take communion together. The Lord’s Supper can become so individualized that we pay no attention to the person standing next to us at the altar. We don’t notice them or smile at them; perhaps we don’t even know them beyond a face in the crowd. Churches today get so excited about growth that they often miss out on the intimacy of fellowship that the early church knew so well (Acts 2). Open communion can lead to the belief in a sort of entitlement program:–simply walking in the doors of a church grants you the right to the body and blood of the Lord that day.

Open communion shows no concern for the faith and love for which our Lord has laid down his life. Somewhere between the font and the altar people get hurt, lost, or led astray. To just continue on to the altar together ignores the sad fact that we have become divided. It places no value on actually knowing each other personally before confessing the death of our Lord together.

I suggest that this is where the conversation take place: between the font and the altar. If we can get to the font together, then we can at least agree on the creed and the basic confession of Jesus as God’s Son. But in no way can we make the immediate leap from the font to the altar and assume simply on the basis of baptism that we are ok to take communion together. This is true even within our own fellowship as we strive to deal with each other in love. And only the Lord through His Spirit and the Gospel of Christ can bring us there together–whether he does so in this life or the next.

So that’s what I did. I took her to the font. I talked about baptism. And almost immediately she began to understand what I was saying. Why be re-baptized if baptism is God’s promise of washing and rebirth into Christ’s kingdom? Is that not still your identity regardless of what church you go to? And will that not also help us to take the next step… a step toward the altar… a step toward a comparison of how we worship, what we preach, who ministers, and how we practice the faith? Will we get to the altar? The Lord only knows; but in humility, we must allow Him to lead us and to do so in prayer and by the power of His Spirit and Word.